There is a seemingly endless stream of movies that render the complication and emotional devastation that terminal illness inflicts upon love. From the classic “Terms of Endearment” to the teenage tragedy “The Fault in Our Stars,” moviegoers are eternally transfixed by the storyline of love persisting in the face of imminent death. In Stephanie Laing’s Netflix original “Irreplaceable You,” Abbie (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, “Belle”), a headstrong women freshly diagnosed with stage four cancer, takes charge of her grief by striving to find a new love for her fiancé, the sheepish yet sweet Sam (Michiel Huisman, “Age of Adaline”), before she passes. Though Abbie’s life-changing condition presents new challenges, it is the irrationality illustrated which shows that the soulmate-level love shared by Sam and Abbie is powerful enough to grant an immunity of sorts that prevents their relationship from ever truly wavering. Despite the frustration that the unrealistic resiliency of their relationship evokes, there is something strangely commendable about the film’s ability to restrain from trying to do too much with such minimal potential.
This acceptance of its limitations aside, the film is still fundamentally flawed in its initial failure to invest viewers into Sam and Abbie’s relationship, a misstep that slows the already dry and uninspired plotline. The brief, commercial-like montage filled with slow motion flashbacks of Abbie and Sam as children and teenagers near the beginning of the film serves as a stab at providing background. However, attempting to sum up Abbie and Sam’s history within the span of a few unbearably cheesy minutes is ineffective, and unintentionally forms a gap between the characters and the audience. Instead of providing detail or substance about why Sam and Abbie fell in love or giving context for the backbone of their relationship, the montage is feebly unoriginal and monotonous, framing Sam and Abbie as simply “meant to be.” Posing their love as so eternally perfect consequentially makes it near impossible for viewers to interpret the relationship as genuine or believable. This bare-bones and over-idealized initial portrayal of Sam and Abbie establishes a one-dimensional foundation and causes the first half of the movie to fall flat.
Despite its rough start, the film progressively gains more momentum and finds moderate success in reviving audiences through the tension that emerges as a result of Abbie’s search for her own replacement. Though somewhat morbid and undeniably odd, the tension that Abbie’s efforts breed between her and Sam breaths a bit more life into the storyline, creating friction and directing the relationship away from its preliminary artificiality. Perhaps even more responsible for the recovery of the later portion of the film is the introduction of a new relationship: an oddball friendship between Abbie and Myron (Christopher Walken, “Seven Psychopaths”) — a father-like, sardonic old man from Abbie’s cancer support group. The bond formed between these two unlikely friends over their illnesses adds a sprinkle of spunk and light humor that spices up the narrative. Myron and Abbie both maintain exceptionally “so-be-it“ attitudes about their impending fates, not wasting time dwelling on the inevitable and instead exchanging pithy banter and enjoying each other’s company.
The overall weakness of its story does not exactly set “Irreplaceable You” up to triumph. Ironically, this works out quite well because triumph is not this film’s intention. There is no insight offered and no profound message mulled over when the screen goes dark. However, despite its general lack of oomph, there is something commendable about the film’s ability to understand itself. This self-awareness comes from a clear comprehension of the audience, who for the most part is not looking to be blown away with emotion but rather just wants mild entertainment, a tinge of sorrow and a familiar narrative. Viewers get exactly what they expect with “Irreplaceable You.” Deficient of pomp, fluff and over-dramatization, this film does not push too hard or dig too deep. It accepts the limitations of its plotline, conceals nothing from the audience and spares itself the embarrassment of striving to be more than it is.